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Supply Chain as a Crucial Component of Sustainability in the Fashion Industry


The fashion industry has always been one of the most influential drivers of society. For many decades, designers of apparel dictated the rules, and millions of people all over the world obeyed them. However, with the recent emergence of the movement towards sustainable development, the roles have switched. Nowadays, the UN Sustainable Development Goals occupy a commanding position and many industries create their products in accordance with them. Several of these goals are relevant to the fashion industry, but two of them correspond the closest to this business: goals nine and twelve (SDG Compass 2015).

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Goal nine urges businesses to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation” (SDG Compass 2015, p. 7). Goal twelve implores entrepreneurs to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” (SDG Compass 2015, p. 7). Using these goals as a framework for a discussion of the fashion industry, it seems feasible to analyse the values and motivations behind the movement towards sustainability in fashion along with the possibilities and challenges presented by this shift.

Currently, the impression is widespread that sustainable practices in the fashion industry are largely marginalised and do not have a significant effect or encourage change. The apparel industry produces a great amount of waste and has not established the proper conditions for achieving a sustainable profit (Palomo-Lovinski & Hahn 2014).

Researchers note that environmentalists cannot agree upon the types of perspectives that should be engaged in the process of solving the issues associated with the unsustainability of the fashion industry. Many specialists hold that consumers should be the initiators of important changes. However, as Palomo-Lovinski and Hahn (2014) note, consumers are less aware than designers of the processes of production and, as a result, of the steps needed to reach sustainability. Therefore, it is necessary to analyse the motivations behind consumers’ purchasing behaviours and find possibilities for making the apparel industry more sustainable.

The Theoretical Model

Model of sustainable fashion design
Figure 1: Model of sustainable fashion design (Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013, p. 14).

While researchers admit that combining sustainability and fashion has been regarded as an oxymoron until recently, they also note that sustainable fashion holds great potential for the future. Aakko and Koskennurmi-Sivonen (2013) offer a theoretical model of sustainable fashion design which will make it easier to understand the research problem (Figure 1). At the core of this model, there is the notion of considered take and return, which involves three design philosophies: cradle to cradle, functional design, and slow fashion.

The cradle to cradle approach, offered by Braungart and McDonough, presupposes that not only the use of natural resources should be involved in fashion design, but the materials’ lifecycle should also be considered (cited in Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013, p. 15). Functional design was introduced by Papanek and is grounded in the view that design should serve as a bridge between human needs, ecology, and culture (cited in Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013, p. 15).

The slow fashion approach has not received as much attention as the first two philosophies. Slow fashion originated from the slow food movement and slow design theory. According to Clark, this concept reflects three lines of reflection: the transparency of production systems, the appraisal of local resources, and the sustainability of products (cited in Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013, p. 15).

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The second element of the model is attachment and appreciation. Aakko and Koskennurmi-Sivonen (2013) include such aspects as spirituality, quality, individuality, and aesthetics here. Finally, the third major level of the model involves sourcing materials, fabric treatment, production methods, saving resources, social implications, and information transparency. Sourcing materials includes choosing and recycling materials and also their lifecycle.

Fabric treatment deals with finishing processes and nanotechnology (Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013). Finishing processes cause the greatest environmental damage during the phase of production. Large quantities of energy, water, and chemicals are exploited during the processes of scouring, dyeing, bleaching, desizing, and printing. While some of these processes are essential, others are not necessary and can be eliminated. Meanwhile, nanotechnology has the potential to offer environmental benefits to the industry.

Saving resources depends on such factors as energy efficiency, laundering, repairing, leasing of clothing, and localism. Leasing, repairing, and localism are the most sustainable options, while energy efficiency and enhanced laundering are potential ways of approaching sustainability (Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013). Social implications that could lead to the apparel industry’s sustainability are social responsibility, participatory design, and activism. Information transparency, which consists of such elements as cause marketing and ecolabelling, can promote consumer sustainability to a great extent.

There is some controversy about cause marketing since it may be complicated to discern whether the project is genuinely aimed at sustainability or promotion (Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013). As far as ecolabels are concerned, they are viewed as a successful option for providing the consumer with reliable data on the materials used in the production process.

Finally, the dimension of production methods involves patternmaking, handcrafting, and the supply chain. With the help of patternmaking, it is possible to reduce unnecessary waste (Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013). As Rissanen notes, clothes cutting leads to 10-20% of fabric waste, which could be eliminated by the integration of sketching and patternmaking (cited in Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013, p. 17). Handcrafting can be employed as a method of sustainable production at the “symbolic level” due to the large amounts of products created for mass markets (Aakko & Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2013, p. 17).

However, even as a small percentage, handcrafting can save energy and resources. The supply chain in the clothing industry can be complicated and time-consuming. However, it is crucial to continue developments in this direction since this has the potential to increase sustainability.

The Apparel Supply Chain

The supply chain in the apparel industry is a complex operation that usually starts with farmers and fibre producers. The process then moves to textile mills, to clothes manufacturers, and finally to retailers (Alper, cited in Fulton & Lee 2013, p. 355). The production of fibre involves taking man-made or natural materials and making fibres that will later be exploited for producing fabrics and clothes. Agricultural sites for fibre growth are located all over the world, as are the manufacturers of man-made fibres (Fulton & Lee 2013).

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Usually, yarns are dyed prior to or after weaving to make patterns and fabrics that consumers and companies want. The process of producing fabric is carried out in textile mills, where the yarn is converted into fabric by knitting or weaving or through a non-woven process. The problem is that many processes of dyeing and handling fibres are harmful to the environment. Thus there is an opportunity for sustainability to address this issue.

The manufacturing of clothes starts with designing an item of apparel. Upon finishing the initial design of a garment, pattern pieces are made, the fabric is cut, and then clothes are labelled and shipped. All of these phases can be completed in one place or in many different spots around the world (Fulton & Lee 2013). The more stages are performed in a single area, the more sustainable the production process will be. The transport of materials and the efficient cutting of fabrics present opportunities for sustainable practices.

Finally, clothes are taken to retailers that sell them to the public. This phase is associated with displaying the product, representing the company image, and offering garments to consumers. The possibility to demonstrate sustainable practices at this stage involves showing what retailers have done to be environmentally friendly (Fulton & Lee 2013). Thus while the supply chain in the apparel industry is complicated, incorporating sustainable processes is not impossible, and manufacturers should strive to do so in their work.

Fulton and Lee (2013) describe the following aspects of sustainability in the apparel supply chain:

  • fibres/fabrics (no pesticides used in fibre growth, clothes made of organic, recycled, biodegradable materials);
  • manufacturing (relationship with producers, water usage, fair trade/human rights, fabric waste, relationship with producers);
  • distribution and logistics (local manufacturing, shipping containers, alternative fuels);
  • warehouse/store efficiency (building materials, product packaging, building energy/efficiency);
  • post-consumer and beyond (company donations/philanthropy, customer sustainability programs, laundering and care, rejection of fast fashion).

Supply Chain Governance (SCG) as a Successful Management Tool

While SCG is gaining more and more interest from researchers, there is still not much literature about it. Li et al. (2014) note that cooperation constitutes the greatest challenge for SCG. Following the enhancement of a competitive strategy through intrinsic integration with external associations, the supply chain coordinators estimate the application responsibility by supervising and coordinating distributors and suppliers.

Li et al. (2014) remark that apart from coordination and cooperation among key partners in the supply chain, there is also the factor of reputation risk to consider. If a focal company that serves as a supply chain coordinator makes an error, such as selecting suppliers without respecting ethical or environmental issues, it can lead to serious criticism of environmental or social obligations. Thus, sustainable governance is suggested as a means of managing and predicting potential risks (Li et al. 2014).

SCG focuses on coordinating the resources of all participants in a supply chain. An optimistic view of the relationships can be gained through the perspective of a resource-based view. Li et al. (2014) note that although many researchers have concentrated on studying SCG, the concept still lacks a unanimous definition. Therefore scholars suggest a sustainability governance framework which depicts the motivations and connotations of governance (Figure 2).

Motivations of sustainable supply chain governance.
Figure 2: Motivations of sustainable supply chain governance (Li et al. 2014, p. 827).

Motivation by internal needs is associated with a supply chain being formed by various actors (manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, distributors, and customers). All of these actors are connected through the focal company, and a supply chain needs to reach an effective equilibrium of the following factors to secure its sustainable development:

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  • willingness to collaborate;
  • common objectives;
  • communication of information among the supply chain members (Li et al. 2014).

Motivation by external needs is based on Maslow’s theory of needs hierarchy. Li et al. (2014) have adjusted this approach to consumer motivations based on the satisfaction perspective. The following needs have been identified:

  1. physiological: customers require only the basic function from the product;
  2. safety: consumers are concerned with the physical impacts caused by products;
  3. love: buyers worry about whether the item can be used to promote their social image;
  4. esteem: consumers appraise the product’s symbolism;
  5. self-actualisation: customers have their personal and fixed brand priorities (Li et al. 2014).

Motivations for Engaging in Sustainable Consumption: Results from a Qualitative Study

While analysing motivations for sustainability, Bly, Gwozdz, and Reisch (2015) identify three major types: consumption as sustainability’s opposite, sustainability as a facilitator of style, and sustainable fashion as a source of pleasure and well-being. Based on their qualitative analysis of people’s conceptualisations of sustainability, scholars conclude that “consumption is the antithesis of sustainability” (Bly, Gwozdz & Reisch 2015, p. 129).

As a result, the pioneers of sustainable fashion consumption are sceptical of fashion retailers’ sustainability efforts. Respondents say that while fashion producers have made some attempts to reach sustainability, their business is largely contingent on hyperconsumption. Most participants have determined that sustainability should be a holistic endeavour covering both environmental and social issues. Therefore it would not be possible to reach sustainability in fast fashion. Moreover, if an organisation links sustainability to profit, its efforts will most likely be regarded as untrustworthy (Bly, Gwozdz & Reisch 2015).

Concerning sustainability as a facilitator of style, scholars note that respondents’ engagement with sustainable consumption induces deeper notions of self. Apart from this, sustainability helps strengthen such aspirations and values as individuality and “freedom from the fashion system and mass culture” (Bly, Gwozdz & Reisch 2015, p. 130). According to scholars, participants conceptualise this idea by appealing to the word ‘style’ and differentiating between ‘fashion’ and ‘style.’

Respondents also tend to discern between their own consumer behaviours and those of the people following the mainstream. Unlike fashion, which is associated with concepts such as ‘short-term,’ ‘dictation from above,’ and ‘trendy,’ style is regarded as something involving self-awareness and creativity (Bly, Gwozdz & Reisch 2015). Thus sustainable consumption has a positive effect on individuals’ style and self-awareness.

Sustainable fashion is a source of pleasure and well-being since it allows people to experience personal growth and pleasure. Respondents explain that sustainable consumption of fashion industry products contributes to “a better way of life” (Bly, Gwozdz & Reisch 2015, p. 130). Individuals explain that the pleasure they used to feel in relation to consumption has been taken over by nobler goals, such as self-fulfilment or self-enhancement. Participants of the study associate well-being and pleasure with comfort, not in a “corporeal sense” but in association with confidence and freedom (Bly, Gwozdz & Reisch 2015, p. 130).

The Sphere of Influence on the Industry

Taking into consideration the aspects of the problem discussed above, it seems viable to conclude that sustainable development will have a great effect on the progress of the apparel industry. More and more people are altering their consumption habits to conform to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, more and more designers and retailers are finding themselves in the situation where their clothes do not sell out because of the lack of a supply chain. It is obvious that the process of changing the whole industry’s direction to a more sustainable route is not a fast or easy matter.

However, the tendencies noticed by scholars do not leave any doubts about the influential role of sustainable initiatives in the progress of the apparel business. Therefore, to keep up with current and future environmental and societal trends, the industry needs to undergo numerous substantial changes. If fashion managers start employing supply chain governance in their organisations, they will gain the opportunity to enhance the possibility of addressing and reaching at least some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Conclusion and Implications

Sustainability has become an essential component of almost every sphere of modern existence. However, in the apparel industry, which plays a highly significant role in many people’s lives, not enough attempts toward reaching sustainability are being made. In order to help companies become more sustainable, researchers have analysed consumers’ behaviours and motivations and suggested solutions that could make the transformation easier.

A rather effective model of sustainable fashion design was created by Aakko and Koskennurmi-Sivonen (2013). This approach promotes such factors as considered take and return, attachment and appreciation, information transparency, sourcing materials, saving resources, social implications, and others as viable options for sustainability. Among the ideas suggested, environmentally-friendly fabric treatment and supply chain governance are viewed as the solutions with the most potential.

While scholars admit that supply chain governance is difficult to implement, they also emphasize that it is the best way to control the process of manufacturing and retailing apparel items while taking sustainability into account. Consumers also note that more productive management is needed to encourage and control the sustainability endeavours of clothing companies. Thus the fashion industry has the potential to reach goals for sustainability, but it is necessary to transform many approaches and shift away from some current practices.

Reference List

Aakko, M & Koskennurmi-Sivonen, R 2013, ‘Designing sustainable fashion: possibilities and challenges’, Research Journal of Textile and Apparel, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 13-22.

Bly, S, Gwozdz, W & Reisch, LA 2015, ‘Exit from the high street: an exploratory study of sustainable fashion consumption pioneers’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol. 39, pp. 125-135.

Fulton, K & Lee, S-E 2013, ‘Assessing sustainable initiatives of apparel retailers on the internet’, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 353-366.

Li, Y, Zhao, X, Shi, D & Li, X 2014, ‘Governance of sustainable supply chains in the fast fashion industry’, European Management Journal, vol. 32, pp. 823-836.

Palomo-Novinski, N & Hahn, K 2014, ‘Fashion design industry impressions of current sustainable practices’, Fashion Practice, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 87-106.

SDG Compass: the guide for business action on the SDGs 2015.

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